Impressions from Commemorative Cultures Study Tour to Germany


Gamze Hızlı, from Memory Center’s Memorialization Program, has participated in a 7-day “Commemorative Cultures Study Tour” in Germany, organized by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. She visited memorial locations in Berlin, Dresden and Buchenwald/Weimar, noting down her impressions.

soviet-war-memorial-berlinSoviet War Memorial: Soviets have erected 3 war memorials in memoriam of 80,000 Red Army soldiers who have lost their lives during the Berlin War, right after the end of the World War II. These memorials are also the cemeteries in which these soldiers are buried. Soviet War Memorial, which is a “victory” memorial that was erected to memorialize 5,000 Red Army soldiers who lost their lives during the war that took place in the British Occupied section of Berlin during April-May 1945, is also the last memorial to be erected in Berlin.

roma-and-sintiThe Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime: In 1992, following discussions on the understanding of victims of the Nazi regime beyond Jews and the need to remember all victims, it was decided to erect this memorial. It was not finished until 2012, however. The memorial inside the Tiergarten, created by an Israeli artist in order to commemorate almost 500,000 Roma and Sinti that were massacred by the Nazis, is a round pool with the poem Auschwitz, written by an İtalian-Roman poet, inscribed around it. There is a triangular stone in the middle of the pool (The Nazis used this triangular sign to mark and differentiate prisoners with different colors) and there are texts and photographs on panels around the pool. Every day a fresh flower is placed on the triangular stone at the middle of the pool.

homosexualsMemorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime: Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, a gay couple, designed and planned to erect this memorial In 2003. The memorial is a small concrete structure with only one window; looking inside through the window, one sees a video of a gay couple kissing each other. There are pictures of homosexuals killed during the Nazi period and information regarding Law No. 175, which defined homosexuality as a criminal act/situation. Law No. 175 was first enacted in 1871; in 1935 the Nazi broadened its scope and it remained in force in that form until 1969. Despite a reform in 1973  it wasn’t completely abolished until 1994. Consequently, the homosexuals killed during the Nazi period has not been a subject [of public debate] until 1980s. There are two civilian initiatives, which have started a campaign for the memorial in 1993: Remember the Homosexual Victims of National Socialism and the Lesbian and Gay Federation of Germany (LSVD). The first video exhibited in the memorial, erected in 2008, used to display only male homosexuals, since there were no records of massacred lesbians during the Nazi period. After some discussions, it was decided that the video should be renewed biennially and should also include lesbians. The memorial was frequently attacked in the first year after its erection. According to estimates, between the years 1933-1945, around 100,000 homosexuals were arrested, 50,000 of them were sentenced and put into prison, and around 5,000-15,000 of them were sent to concentration camps. Even though we do not know the exact number of people who have lost their lives in concentration camps, when considering the fact that homosexuals were subjected to the most cruel treatment, we can assume that most of them have died in the camps.

Georg-Elser-MemorialGeorg Elser Memorial: On November 8th, 1939, right after the beginning of the war, Georg Elser, who was an anti-Nazi insurgent and had followed Hitler’s schedule for a year, installed a homemade time bomb in a pub where Hitler and high ranking Nazi officers met. The bomb went off 13 minutes after Hitler and high ranking Nazi officers left the building, since Hitler had to shorten his speech because the weather was foggy and it was impossible for them to travel via a plane, forcing them to catch the train. 8 people died and 60 people were injured during the explosion. Later, Elser was caught while he was trying to escape to Switzerland and he was sent to a concentration camp; he was killed there at a later date. The memorial, which was erected in the year 2011 to commemorate Elser, who is seen as a hero today, is a 17-meter tall silhouette of Elser’s face, and it can be seen from everywhere on the street it is located (Wilhelm Street, on which the Nazi ministry buildings were located).

EuthanasiePropagandaAction T4: With the “euthanasia decree” of October 1939, commonly known as Action T4, Hitler granted a “right to death” to incurable patients. The decree entered into force retrospectively, effective as of September 1st, 1939. Statements such as “wiping out”, “unnecessary” people who are unable to work and who are deemed “not useful to society”, “racial cleansing”, physically and mentally disabled people being “a burden to public welfare”, had been used since 1933, when the Nazi regime came to power. The massacre, which started on September 1939 under the name of the euthanasia program, continued until August 1941. The prototypes of gas chambers, which were later used at concentration camps and numerous sanatoriums, were developed during this period. During this period, more than 70,000 sick, physically and mentally disabled people, who were brought to six death centers built in Germany and Austria, were killed in gas chambers. During the unofficial massacre, which continued between the years 1941-1945 after the program officially ended, an estimated 200,000 more people were killed. The name Action T4 is an abbreviation of Tiergartenstraße 4, the address of the “Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care”, which was responsible for the implementation of the euthanasia program and was led by Hitler’s personal doctor. The institution’s villa was later demolished, however, there is an abstract sculpture in its place, as well as a panel describing the events at the bus stop right in front of the place. A new memorial is under construction at the area behind this bus stop. The image above depicts the cover of a 1938 issue of the monthly magazine “Neues Volk/New Society”, published by NSDAP’s Office of Racial Policy. The cover says “The cost of a person that has this hereditary disease to the German society is 60,000 Marks. Citizen, this is your money too”.

Bebelplatz_Night_of_Shame_MonumentBebelplatz (Memorial to the Book Burning): Bebelplatz is the name of the square in front of Humboldt University, in the center of Berlin. On May 10th, 1933 members of a Nazi student organization burn tens of thousands of books in front of German university cities. In one day, 20,000 books were burned at Bebelplatz. Today, at that very square, there is an underground library, made up of empty bookshelves, designed by Micha Ullman, which can accommodate 20,000 books. We see the shelves through a glass panel on the floor. Written on the metal plates located in different places at the same square is the following sentence from Almansor, a play written in 1821 by Heinrich Heine, who was among the writers whose books had been burned: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”. In addition to the memorial, Humbolt University organizes a festival at this square, held annually between the 1st and 10th of May. During this festival, it is possible to pick up a book from the shelves brought to this square and read it on cushions and hammocks, students sell books and book reading events are organized. 

Neue Wache (New Guardhouse)Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) (Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship): This building was built in 1818 and it was used as royal military headquarters until 1918. In 1931, it was redesigned to commemorate the soldiers who have lost their lives during World War I. The building, which was bombarded and mostly destroyed during World War II, was restored after 1960 and it was designed as a central monument, which commemorates all victims. In 1969 bones of an unidentified soldier and an unidentified concentration camp victim were buried here using soil taken from battlefields of World War II and concentration camps. The name of the memorial, in front of which a soldier stood guard until 1990, was changed from Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism to its current name, and a sculpture of a mother holding her son, designed by Käthe Kollwitz, was placed inside the building.

blockofwomenBlock of Women (memorial to the Rosenstraße protest): At the end of February 1943, after the Nazis had received a heavy blow at Stalingrad, around 1,800 Jewish men married to non-Jewish women living around Berlin were gathered in a building on Rosenstraße for deportation. Semi-Jews and Jews married to non-Jewish (Arian) women had been exempt from deportation and concentration camps until this date. Thereupon, on February 28th, 1943, wives of gathered Jewish men and their relatives held a demonstration in front of this building for five days and they continued resisting despite shooting threats of Nazi soldiers. After five days 1,800 men were set free. This event, being the only example of collective civil resistance, stays forgotten for a very long time. The fact that the demonstrators were women, that it was the only collective civil resistance, and that it was in fact successful, disproving the “If we had opposed they would have killed us too” argument of German society, may be among the reasons why it has been forgotten for a long time. After Ingeborg Hunzinger, an Eastern German artist, discovered this after some research, she donated her sculpture “Block der Frauen (Block of Women)”, made in the mid 1980s, to the Berlin municipality. The monument was placed inside the park in the Rosenstraße street in the year 1995. The sculpture, depicting the resistance and consisting of many block pieces, has this inscription at its back: “The strength of civil disobedience, the vigor of love overcomes the violence of dictatorship; Give us our men back; Women were standing here, defeating death; Jewish men were free.”

Platform 17 MemorialPlatform 17 Memorial: The train station in Grunewald region of Berlin, is the station from which Jews were sent to ghettos in the east and concentration camps between October 18th, 1941 and March 27th, 1945. Even in the year 1985, during the 150th anniversary of the German railroad system, nobody was talking about its systematic use in deporting masses during the Nazi regime. After the reunification of Germany, in the year 1991, a memorial designed by artist Karol Broniatowski, comprising of human figures carved into concrete depicting the people who were sent to their death, was placed at the entrance of the station. The metal information plate beside the memorial explains that 50,000 Jews were sent to their deaths from this station. Later, on January 27th, 1998,  the railroad, destroyed during the war, was restored and 186 metal plates were installed onto the 160-meter platform. On each plate the date of the train leaving the station and the number of Jews it carried are written. The first train to Auschwitz, carrying 1,000 Jews, left the station on November 19th, 1942. Most of the trains before that were sent to ghettos in the east. The date of the last train is March 27th, 1945, when 18 Jews were sent to Terezin concentration camp. Grass growing among rebuilt rails of the station indicates that this station will never be used again and it is considered a part of this monument.

house-of-wanseeHouse of the Wannsee Conference: On January 20th, 1942, high ranking officials of the National Socialist Party, high ranking SS members, a police chief and various ministers/bureaucrats participated in a conference held in a villa in Berlin’s suburbs, which was [normally] used as a guest house by the Nazis. Even though the reason they gathered was to talk about the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”, the decision of the Jewish genocide predates this gathering, as it was probably taken during the beginning of 1941. Approximately one million Jews were killed before this meeting in January 1942. Therefore, we can assume that the referred to the “Final Solution” as a process to make killing mechanisms more “effective” by organizing a distribution of labor that would include the state bureaucracy. During the conference directed by the Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), Reinhard Heydrich, and attended by 15 high ranking representatives from the SS, NSDAP and various ministries, Adolf Eichmann held minutes. He included a table that indicated the Jewish population in Europe, North Africa and the Soviet Union, as well as numbers distinguishing between the German-occupied and non-occupied regions, and the number of people who had already been killed. According to these figures, the number of Jewish people Nazis were planning to destroy was 11 million. Vagueness of the name “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” is preserved in the minutes of this meeting. Use of words such as “extermination”, “killing”, and “deportation” is purposefully avoided; instead, terms such as “decreasing the population via natural methods”, “special treatment”, and “external immigration” were used. With the plans approved by the participants, death became a completely systematic mechanism that mobilized all the state’s resources, and, with the participation of bureaucratic instruments,  turned into a giant cogwheel made of large tables and charts. House of Wannsee Conference, which was converted into a museum in 1992, is one of the two places that intend to provide information regarding the perpetrators, along with the Topography of Terror. There is a permanent exhibition in this center, as well as a library and seminar rooms in which students regularly receive trainings.

murderedjewsMemorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: The idea of making a monument that commemorates all the European Jews that were killed dates back to a civilian initiative started by journalist/writer Lea Rosh and historian Eberhard Jackel, at the end of the 1980s. After it was decided to erect this monument at the end of the 1990s, a design competition selected Peter Eisenman as the monument’s architect, planning its realization in June 1999. Upon discussion regarding the original design and amendments to it, construction of the monument started in April 2003, leading up to its inauguration on May 10th, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The monument is comprised of 2,711 concrete blocks covering an area of 19,000 square meters. Even though one’s feelings of uneasiness and confusion while walking through the narrow halls of the monument are commonly interpreted as a symbol for the lost connection of a so-called regular system with humanity, the designer himself has refrained from making a statement [on this symbolism]. Under the outdoor monument, there is an Information Center, which also houses a permanent exhibition.

topographyofterrorTopography of Terror Documentation Center: In the center, which was inaugurated in May 2010, there is a permanent exhibition that focuses on the functioning of the [political] system and the perpetrators active during the Nazi reign between 1933-1945, as well as a training center and a library. The center, which is the first to focus on the perpetrators, was constructed after two failed design competitions, following a third one in 2006, and is differentiated from other monuments through the relationship between its location and the perpetrators in its focus. The area on which the center was built is right in the middle of the former SS and Gestapo Headquarters of 1933-1945 and the Reich Security Headquarters [buildings]. These three buildings, which were bombarded during the war, were kept untouched for many years. At the end of the 1950s, without any discussion whatsoever, ruins of these buildings were removed and the area was cleaned from these buildings and, in a sense, from its history. In the year 1987, following the decision to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the foundation of Berlin in this area, and no mention of its Nazi past during these celebrations, a civil initiative organized an outdoor exhibition entitled ‘Topography of Terror’. It was kept open for three months every year until the inauguration of the current center.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStolpersteine: This memorial, whose name can be translated as “stumbling blocks”, is comprised of brass plates, on which  a victim’s name, birthdate, and where they were sent by the Nazi is inscribed by hand, tacked down on a cobblestone, and embedded in the ground in front of the last known addresses of victims of Nazi regime. This “demonstration”, which was started in 1992 by artist Gunter Demning, an artist from Cologne, without official permission, was in fact an idea that was developed from Demning’s sentence in Talmud: “A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”. The purpose of tacking the plates on cobblestones is also to make passers-by bend while trying to read what is written on them, and thereby show respect to the victims. Each plate is handcrafted by Demnig one-by-one, and cost him 120 Euros. As of 2013, there are 43,500 stolpersteine in almost 1000 cities in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Belgium, Czech Republic, Russia, Croatia, France, Slovenia, Italy, Norway, Ukraine, Slovakia, Sweden and Luxemburg.

stasiarchivesOffice of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives (BStU): After demolition of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, citizens of Berlin discovered that Stasi archives were being destroyed. In response, they occupied the Stasi building on January 15th, 1990, with the slogan “The files belong to us”. Later on, a group of occupants took on the role of protecting the archives. The Stasi archives, which were re-organized and opened to the public in the year 1992, were operated by this initiative of former opponents of the regime, and the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives, which was established later. The work of reconstructing documents, which were destroyed using various methods before abandoning the building, and arranging the archives is still ongoing. Everybody has the right to access his or her own personal information. Moreover, journalists, historians, and researchers can have access to information about others, with personal sections kept secret.

Memorial Bautzner Straße-Memorial Bautzner Straße: This [former] detention center built by the Eastern Germany State Security Ministry (Stasi) for political detainees is currently functioning as a memorial center. Captured opposition members were blind-folded and brought to Bautzner, which is the only detention center preserved in the Saxony region, in delivery vehicles that were in use by every merchant at the time. They were denied any information regarding the reason of their arrest and any connection to the outside world, and were kept in two-person cells, using psychological pressure methods. During the night, every five minutes their sleeping positions were checked (They were forced to sleep on their backs, with both their hands visible outside the blanket). Those who broke this rule were woken up and punished. This and similar methods of psychological torture were used in the detention center, but there was not much physical torture.

Pirna-Sonnenstein Memorial-2Pirna-Sonnenstein Memorial: Pirna-Sonnenstein, which originally functioned as a sanitarium for the physically and mentally disabled, was shut down following the euthanasia decree published by the Nazis in October, 1939. It was used to kill physically and mentally disabled people in gas chambers between June 1940 and August 24th, 1941 (the date Hitler ordered the immediate termination of the Action T4 program due to political reasons) [within the scope of Action T4 program]. The faith of the victims, who were brought to the sanitarium by buses, was determined by inscribing either “Able to work” or “Unable to work” on their forms, signaling who would live and who would be send to the gas chambers. The forms also noted a probable cause of death that matched the medical history of the victims, which would later be used in the printed letter sent to the patient’s family including the phrase “Despite our best efforts, we have lost the patient due to this reason. We can send you their ashes upon request.” They were asked to enter the gas chamber in groups of 20-30 people to take a shower. If the victims had any golden teeth, they were removed upon their death. Then they were burned in the crematorium in the next room. Ashes were thrown in the valley behind the building. If the families requested ashes to be sent, some of the ashes of the person that was currently being burnt were sent to them. Out of 13,720 people who were killed here, only about 1,000 were prisoners sent from various concentration camps to be killed during the summer of 1941; all of the remaining victims were either physically or mentally disabled, and 700 of them were children. In 1942 and 1943, about one third of doctors and nurses working at the sanitarium were sent to Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka concentration camps, and were asked to apply their “experience” to gas chambers at these camps. This event, erased from public memory until 1989, was brought to the public due to a small exhibition created by a historian on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Action T4 program, September 1st, 1989. Trustees of the Sonnenstein Memorial initiative, which was founded in June 1991, have restored a gas chamber and crematorium in the basement in 1995 as a result of archival efforts and an archeological study of the place between 1992-1994. In the year 2000, a permanent exhibition was created on the upper level. Settlement starts approximately 200 meters down the hill on which the sanitarium stands. Therefore, residents of the town of Pirna must have seen the busses arriving to the sanitarium full, leaving empty, as well as the constant smoke coming out of the crematorium. However, nobody investigated or questioned what had happened during that period of time.

Pirna-Sonnenstein Memorial-3After converting the sanitarium into a memorial, crosses of different colors were drawn on the cobblestones of the road leading from the center of Pirna to the sanitarium, symbolizing 13,720 people who were murdered here. During training programs organized for students from schools in Pirna and surrounding areas, students walk over the fading crosses. There is a statue at the beginning of the valley behind the sanitarium, the place where they threw the ashes of the victims, made of two large blocks of marble, with a cross shaped gap between them to symbolize that there is a grave here for the people who have lost their lives. When we asked why did chose crosses for both the cobblestones and the memorial statue even though not all victims were Christian, staff of the memorial answered that this had been a joint decision by the people of Pirna and families of the victims and that the cross is a universal symbol of death. However, a young historian working at the memorial center added that he did not know the exact details of the decision process.

Buchenwald MemorialBuchenwald Memorial: This was the largest concentration camp inside the borders of Germany. The SS established it in June 1937 by cutting down trees in the middle of the forest in Weimar and employed it as work camp until 1945. During this period, around 250,000 people from various countries of Europe were arrested and brought to this camp. Among them were opposition members, former criminals, Romans and Sintis, Jews, Jehova’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and homeless people. It is estimated that 56,000 people, 11,000 of whom were Jewish, died due to torture, medical experiments, and excessive working. 8,000 Soviet war captives were also shot. The 3rd American Army liberated the camp on April 11th, 1945. The American army conducted a reconnaissance flight in April, discovered weapon factories around the camp area, and bombed them. During this bombardment some of the prisoners died and while Nazis forced other prisoners to carry the dead, some of them managed to steal weapons and a radio with which they contacted the American army, starting resistance simultaneously with the operation of April 11th.

Since the evacuation of prisoners would take time due to technical reasons, they continued to stay at the camp for a while after the liberation. In the meantime, they studied the archives and upon discovering that about 51,000 people were killed at the camp, they erected a concrete triangular prism monument to commemorate the dead. In August, the camp is handed to Soviet forces and a new camp is built below it with the name Soviet Special Camp No. 2. Soviet units initially brought local administrators of the National Socialist Party here, then they started to detain other Germans, who were reported to be related with the Nazis as well. About 28,000 prisoners were denied trials or investigations into their relationships with the Nazis an were forbidden contact with the outside world. About 7,000 of these 28,000 prisoners died due to reasons such as hunger and illness, and they are buried in mass graves in the camp area. Soviets leave the camp in 1950, right after the foundation of the German Democratic Republic. In 1958, the German Democratic Republic established a Buchenwald National Warning and Memorial Center at the former site of the camp. In 1991, Buchenwald was rearranged, and the Center held many exhibitions regarding the concentration camp. After long discussions, the area below the Nazi concentration camp, where Soviet Special Camp No. 2 used to be, was also included in the memorial. Located mass graves were marked with iron bars and families of the deceased were allowed to place crosses and headstones on a flat area inside the forest near the camp.